By Elin McCoy, Bloomberg
OVER THE last decade, wineries have begun to rethink the whole tasting experience and investing in upscale settings, with prices to match.
If your image of a winery tasting room in Napa or Sonoma is a long bar dotted with open bottles and black plastic spit buckets no one uses anyway, you’re out of date. New tasting rooms are opening at twice the rate of new wineries, a trend that isn’t always welcomed by local residents, who complain about traffic.
Millennial hot spot Scribe, a picturesque hacienda winery in Sonoma that opened in 2007, helped shift the paradigm. Soon, other small, remote wineries began opting for swanky, salon-style wine bars in more urban settings away from the vineyard: Outland, in downtown Napa, is a collaboration among three tiny producers — Farella, Poe, and Forlorn Hope. A few blocks away is the tasting room for Blackbird, which it dubs RiverHouse by Bespoke Collection, and charming spots from the likes of Acumen, Brown Estate, and Mark Herold are also nearby.
Why? Selling direct to consumers is essential for small and medium-sized wineries because it cuts out the wholesaler and retailer middlemen that take substantial cuts from profits. And it’s become a way to cement customer relationships, persuade you to join their wine clubs, and keep buying their brands.
Here’s my pick of six wineries with new, very different tasting rooms. For most, reservations are necessary.
• Silver Oak Alexander Valley
Silver Oak Alexander Valley, a popular Napa producer of plush, collectible cabernets (LeBron James and Oprah are fans), has opened the ultimate sustainable winery and tasting room at its Alexander Valley vineyard in Sonoma.
In July, it was awarded LEED platinum certification, with all the right green stuff that this implies — zero toxic materials, solar panels, pure, filtered air, salvaged redwood siding from old 1930s wine tanks — wrapped in a sleekly modern, barn-style building. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame panoramic views of 75 acres of cabernet vines.
A tour includes a look at the $1-million membrane bioreactor that filters 100% of the water (4,700 gallons a day) from the cellar, as well as a screen showing how much water has been used that day. Tastings feature the latest vintage of Silver Oak’s Napa and Sonoma cabernets.
Cost: $30 to $300
Best tasting option: 90-minute food and wine pairing with tour, includes four wines; $90
Napa wineries that make the most expensive cabernets, such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate, don’t have tasting rooms. So it’s a big deal that Bill Harlan’s newest venture, Promontory, is now opening its doors to tasters. The stunning 840-acre estate in the foothills of Mount Veeder is run by his son Will, who wants you to savor the atmosphere in which this intense, smoky, mineral cabernet is made. He’s hoping you’ll bond to Promontory for life.
The stone, glass, and steel winery, which opened last year, exhibits a cool, austere, almost bleak-chic aesthetic in an untamed landscape, plus 80 acres of vines. Private tastings of the current and library vintage take place in small, serene, Japanese-influenced rooms with windows overlooking gorgeous mountain vistas.
Promontory debuted with the 2009 vintage, and it is sold via mailing list, but if you visit, you’ll go to the top of the wait list and can buy the wines (current release 2012 costs $700 a bottle), including older vintages, at the winery.
Cost: $200, but the tasting fee is deducted from a purchase.
As more wineries go high-design, ditto for their tasting rooms. Cabernet producer Quintessa, a 280-acre estate in Rutherford, created three 250-square-foot wood-and-glass private-tasting pavilions set in prime vineyard viewing spots on the ridgeline of Dragon’s Hill.
These design-award-winning spaces seem like the perfect minimalist structures for mindful yoga at dawn, but they’re just as soothing at a wine tasting. Immersed in the landscape and vines that produce the winery’s lush cabernet and vibrant sauvignon blanc, you can sample barrels from some of the 25 vineyard blocks, a current vintage, and a rare library wine. Then take a walk through the winery and caves.
Cost: $75 to $125
Best tasting option: Quintessentially Quintessa, 90 minutes; $125
• Kosta Browne
Before this month, celebrated Sonoma pinot brand Kosta Browne had never had a tasting room, though it added a new winery in Sebastopol a few years ago. Founded in 1997, KB, recently purchased by Duckhorn, made its name on rich, lush versions of pinot from purchased grapes. Almost all of its 14 bottlings go to the 20,000-plus devotees on the mailing list. (The wait list is very long.)
But at the just-opened Gallery, a tasting lounge KB unveiled on Aug. 9, even new wait list members (just sign up!) can reserve one of the twice-a-day tasting slots to try and buy the wines. Through a large glass window in the lounge, you can look down into the minimalist barrel room to watch cellar workers as you taste or settle on a long, earth-toned banquette.
Among the offerings is the new boundary-pushing Observation series of pinots and chardonnays (my pick: the 2016 Free James pinot), exclusively available at the winery. Tastings of five or six wines are customized to your interests and include a tour and a barrel sample — or two.
Cost: $75 active members; $125 wait listers
Tasting options: Wide open. Best bet for wait listers is the 10 a.m. Monday-to-Thursday slot.
• Prisoner Wine Company
In October, cult label Prisoner Wine Company will open its first-ever tasting room, designed as a daylong destination in Napa called the “Makery.” Bought by Constellation Brands in 2016 for $285 million, the brand will offer wine tastings, yes, but will also offer guests the chance to hang out in individual studios with local artisans-in-residence, from soap makers to potters, and take classes with them. A culinary center will be on-site as well. Expect live music, blending seminars, an outdoor wood-fired oven, and much more.
The Prisoner, a complex, innovative red blend with a Goya-inspired label, debuted in 2000 and quickly became a hit. The idea for the Makery came from events the brand hosted with creative types in six cities. Now there are 10 wines; don’t miss a taste of new blend, Dérangé.
Cost: Not yet decided.
• Ashes & Diamonds
The stark, white buildings with porthole windows and a floating, zigzag roof give Ashes & Diamonds, a winery that opened in September 2017, a mid-20th century Los Angeles vibe. Founder Kashy Khaledi, a former exec at Capitol Records and MTV, wants to make this estate just north of the city of Napa into a cultural hub, with regular wine maker “conversations” and special dinners such as September’s “Peace in the Middle East Feast,” all served up with mellow playlists featuring the likes of Nina Simone and Bob Marley.
Khaledi enlisted several well-known Napa wine makers, who each produce one or more of the eight wines. Diana Snowden Seysses makes a couple of single vineyard cabernets, while among those that Steve Matthiasson does are a cabernet franc, a rosé, and a white blend. The goal behind the cabernets is to hark back to the Napa cab style of the 1960s and 1970s when the wines had a lighter, more herbal character and lower alcohol. They’re on wine lists at buzzy New York restaurants like the Modern, Nomad, and Eleven Madison Park.
Tasting places include a bright outdoor patio, a casual lounge and bar with colorful chairs, and a buzzy restaurant serving small plates — don’t miss the wood fired chicken thighs with spiced hummus — that doesn’t close until 7 p.m. Don’t miss the Red Hen cabernet.
Cost: $40 to $250
Best Tasting Option: The A&D wines, plus food, $95